By Edward Nawotka
For obvious reasons, if you want customer service this week from Kotobarabia, Egypt’s predominant e-book store, you’re out of luck.
Ramy Habeeb, founder and CEO of Kotobarabia, who spoke to us from his home in London, notes that the company’s servers are located in Arizona in the United States and, accordingly, they’ve had no disruption of service. “But when you look at the analytics, we have lost all Egyptian traffic,” he says. “We typically do participate in the Cairo International Book Fair and fortunately all of our inventory is online, so the disruption isn’t as much of a problem for us. It’s the small- to medium-sized publishers that I’m worried about.”
Habeeb’s company was the first to offer e-books in the Arabic language and he’s had a long-term exposure to the vagaries of the Egyptian publishing scene. Bookstores are few and far between and distribution for a publisher typically doesn’t extend beyond five kilometers from the publishers front door –- or “the distance someone can carry books on their back.” He noted that for a typical small Egyptian publisher sales at the Cairo International Book Fair and smaller ones around the country often account for 60% or more of their annual revenue.
“My hope would be that the organizers of the book fair plan plan another event in the summer,” says Habeeb. “If they wait till next year, that’s going to be too long for some people. The next biggest book fair -– in Beirut –- isn’t until December. The Riyadh International Bookfair is big and takes place in March, but that is likely going to be too soon for many to make the trip.”
The upside to all this comes later, after censorship is lifted and a new government is put in place, when publishers will be free to print the titles they want.
“I think what we’ll see is similar to what is happening in Tunisia,” says Habeeb. “The lifting of the censorship laws had an immediate results. The first thing we’ll see is a wave of books that were previously banned by the previous regime, such as books criticizing the regime or titles about Mubarak. these things will come into effect pretty quickly. The next wave is letting in content that was previously not let in . . . but my fear is that censorship will maintain itself. Heavy censorship has been a part of Egyptian life for a long time and has become part of our modern psyche. My fear is that once everything is let in, we might say “Oh, but that’s smut, so let’s stop that.”
Habeeb believes it is the responsibility of the Arab and Western publishing communities to stand up for “non-censorship.” They can do this, he says, by participating in the rebirth of the free and open Egyptian publishing industry.
“Our responsibility is to introduce new perspectives,” he says. “When you’re watching the news there is the fear that a fundamentalist regime will take over as it did in Iran, but the best way to fight that is through education, through a demonstration of the pluralistic world we live in. You have to make sure all views are represented.”
At the same time, Habeeb is pragmatic. He knows that while it’s important that views are expressed, it won’t matter if readers can’t get the books. “As a publisher, it’s not just about fighting censorship, it’s about maintaining the market. The flood of books that I can see coming, they need to move and get into people’s hands . . . and then they need to be read.”